Film: Zulu (1964)

Zulu is a 1964 British epic war film depicting the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879, during the Anglo-Zulu War. It shows how 150 British soldiers, many of whom were sick and wounded patients in a field hospital, successfully held off a force of 4,000 Zulu warriors. The film is notable for showing the Zulu army as disciplined and governed by strategy.

A company of the British Army’s 24th Regiment of Foot is using the missionary station of Rorke’s Drift in Natal as a supply depot and hospital for their invasion force across the border in Zululand. Realising that they cannot outrun the Zulu army with wounded soldiers, Chard decides to make a stand at the station, using wagons, sacks of mealie, and crates of ship’s biscuit to form a defensive perimeter. Witt becomes drunk and demoralises the men with his overtly dire predictions; the soldiers of the Natal Native Contingent desert. Chard orders Witt to be locked up in a supply room.

Throughout the day and night, wave after wave of Zulu attackers are repelled. The Zulus succeed in setting fire to the hospital, leading to intense fighting between British patients and Zulu warriors as the former try to escape the flames. Private Henry Hook takes charge and leads the patients to safety. The next morning, the Zulus approach to within several hundred yards and begin a war chant, as a sign of respect; the British respond by singing the Welsh song “Men of Harlech”. In the final assault, just as it seems the Zulus will finally overwhelm the tired defenders, the British soldiers fall back to a small redoubt constructed out of mealie bags. With a reserve of soldiers hidden within the redoubt, they form into three ranks and fire volley after volley, inflicting heavy casualties; the Zulus retreat. After a pause of three hours, the Zulus re-form on the Oscarberg. Resigned to another assault, the British are astonished when the Zulus instead sing a song to honour the bravery of the defenders before departing.

The film ends with another narration by Richard Burton, listing the eleven defenders who received the Victoria Cross for the defence of Rorke’s Drift, the most awarded to a regiment in a single action up to that time.

The basic premises of the film are true and largely accurate, but is not a historical re-enactment of real events. The heavily outnumbered British successfully defended Rorke’s Drift more or less as portrayed in the film. Writer Cy Endfield even consulted a Zulu tribal historian for information from Zulu oral tradition about the attack.

The Zulus did not sing a song saluting fellow warriors, and departed at the approach of the British relief column. This inaccuracy has been praised for showing the Zulus in a positive light and for treating them and the British as equals, but it has also been criticised as undermining any anti-imperial message of the film. Stanley Baker purchased John Chard’s Victoria Cross in 1972 believing it to be a replica. After Baker’s death, it was sold to a collector at a low price but then found to be the genuine medal.

Zulu 1964
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Ben Davidson

Hello, I have been studying all aspects of history for about 25 years. I have a BA History from the University of Bedfordshire. My historical areas of interest are anything really, but I specialise in 19th - 20th century Britain, America and Ireland. I am also strongly aligned with most military history, really enjoying WW2 and the US Civil War. Chuck in the king or queen and Bob's your uncle.

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